A Cinnabar lacquer 'Eighteen Luohan' ruyi sceptre Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period
Japanese Collection, 1999.
Eskenazi, Ltd., London.
J.J. Lally and Co., New York, 2001.
The sceptre itself and the carved motif on this piece are rich in auspicious symbolism. Ruyi sceptre is a talisman presented to bestow good fortune. The origins of the sceptre are associated with Buddhism and it is thought to have developed from back-scratchers used by monks and holy figures during pre-Tang (618-907) times. With the temporary decline of Buddhism, it was later adapted by Daoists who introduced the heart-shaped head rendered as a lingzhi or longevity fungus. Sceptres gradually lost their original practical purpose, and came to take any form deemed suitable to express well-wishing. It was Qianlong's father, the Yongzheng Emperor, who revived the auspicious tradition of the ruyi , which literally means 'as you wish'. Sceptres became an imperial object and were presented to the Emperor or members of the Imperial family and high officials as auspicious gifts on occasions such as birthdays and promotions.
The present sceptre is skilfully carved in high relief with particular attention paid to the smallest details making each luohan immediately recognizable. Such complex decoration of figures on sceptres are rare. For examples of cinnabar lacquer carved sceptres see one, from the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Gugong Bowuyuan cang diao qi, Beijing, 1985, pls. 387 and 388; and one in the Museum fur Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt am Main, published in Gunhild Gabbert, Ostasiatische Lackkunst, Frankfurt am Main, 1978, pl. 8. See also a sceptre sold in our New York rooms, 30th March 2006, lot 106; and another sold in our London rooms, 12th November 2003, lot 188.
The number and opulence of ruyi sceptres increased during the Qianlong period, when the emperor officially ordered court officials and courtiers to present sceptres at imperial birthdays and New Year celebrations. Sceptres were made in all types of mediums with their design left to the artists' imagination. See ten sceptres included in the exhibition China. The Three Emperors, the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2006, cat. nos. 273-282, which represent the variety of imperial sceptres from the Qing Court collection and presently in the Palace Museum, Beijing.